While Paul was in Ephesus during his third missionary journey (Acts 19), he received a report from Corinth that divisions had broken out in the church and that the congregation was picking sides, elevating one leader against another (1 Cor 1:11; 4:6). But there was more. The problems in Corinth included immorality within a family (1 Cor 5:1-13), litigation before the civil courts (1 Cor 6:1-11), and sexual immorality with prostitutes (1 Cor 6:12-20). Paul—ever insightful as to how spiritual problems resulted from doctrinal error—pointed the Corinthians to the lordship of Christ and the church’s high status as slaves of Christ. For Paul, the selfishness of some among the Corinthians sharply contradicted the demands of knowing Christ as Lord. In 1 Corinthians 5-6, Paul took on the role of a trial lawyer. Paul’s verdict in the case against the Corinthians was both guilty and innocent. They were guilty of gross misconduct, but—because of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the presence of the Spirit among them—they were ultimately innocent before God. Paul rendered his verdict in light of Old Testament texts and the finished work of Christ.
(1) In 1 Cor 5:7, Paul pleaded with the Corinthians to pursue moral purity in light of Christ being sacrificed as their Passover. Just as the Israelites ate unleavened bread during the Passover festival (Exodus 12-14), so too the Corinthians were to recognize that they were unleavened. Nothing of the old batch was to remain. Paul was aghast that someone in the Corinthian congregation could receive pats on the back for sleeping with his stepmother. Rather than being filled with grief over the matter, they were drunk with pride (1 Cor 5:2). Paul implored that such a person be removed from the church: “Turn that one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:5). While Paul was concerned for the final salvation of the immoral man, he was also concerned for the wellbeing of the congregation. Paul instructed the Corinthians that just as a small amount of yeast permeates a whole batch of dough, so immoral behavior—if left unchecked—would soon have an effect on the entire church (1 Cor 5:6). Paul urged the Corinthians to celebrate the sacrifice of Christ “with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor 5:8) and avoid any association with those who claimed to be of the Lord but lived in sexual immorality, greed, idolatry, revelry, drunkenness or swindling (1 Cor 5:11).
(2) In 1 Cor 5:13, Paul cited the judicial procedures established in Deut 17:7 as relevant for how the Corinthians should deal with sexually immoral church members. In Duet 17:2-7, Moses wrote the process Israel was to follow if one in the congregation committed idolatry. The testimony of two or three witnesses would confirm the death sentence by stoning. Moses concluded by warning Israel, “You must purge the evil from you” (Deut 17:7). And Paul urged the Corinthians to put away the sexually immoral man from among them lest some in their numbers turn away from Christ.
(3) In 1 Cor 6:16, Paul quoted Gen 2:24 as a rule that those united to the Lord are to avoid any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage. For Paul, the pre-fall institution of marriage, where husband and wife become one flesh in their physical union (Gen 2:24), meant by deduction that any physical union made a man and woman one flesh. That some in the church were involved with prostitutes was evidence that they had not grasped their union with Christ, the Lord and Master of the church (1 Cor 6:12-20). Though some in Paul’s audience thought, “Everything is permissible for me” (1 Cor 6:12), and “Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods” (1 Cor 6:13), Paul urged the believers to temper their freedom in light of God’s work among them. Paul asked, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? So should I take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute?” (1 Cor 6:15). Because those joined to the Lord are united with Him in spirit, Paul viewed as deplorable a believer visiting a prostitute. Paul confronted his audience in the strongest terms, saying, “You are not your own, for you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19b-20).